Running the Rift
By NAOMI BENARON
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Copyright © 2012 Naomi Benaron
All right reserved.
Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of the bed. Rain hissed at the windows and roared against the corrugated roof, and Jean Patrick huddled closer to his brother Roger for warmth. He remembered then that Papa was going to a conference in Kigali. He said it was a very important meeting; educators from all across Rwanda would be there.
"I'm leaving now," Papa whispered, his voice barely louder than the rain. "Uwimana will be here soon to pick me up." If even Headmaster was going, Jean Patrick thought, the conference must be top level.
The lantern flame glinted on Papa's glasses and on a triangle of white shirt; the storm must have knocked the power out, as usual. "You boys will have to check the pen carefully after you bring the cattle in. Make sure no earth has washed away in the rain." He tucked the blanket around their shoulders. "And Roger—you'll have to check Jean Patrick's lessons. I don't want any mistakes from either of you."
Turning his head from the light, Jean Patrick puckered his face. He didn't need Roger to check his homework; even Papa had to look hard to find an error.
"I'll be back tomorrow night," Papa said.
Jean Patrick leaned on his elbows and watched his father walk into the hallway on a beam of yellow light. His footsteps echoed on the concrete. "Be safe, Dadi," he said. "May Imana bless your journey." Gashogoro, the rainy season of November and December, often turned the roads leading from Cyangugu into muddy swamps. On the path, Jean Patrick sometimes sank in mud to his ankles.
All day the rain continued. Streams swelled and tumbled toward Lake Kivu. Rivers of red clay washed down from the hills, and by the time Jean Patrick came home from school, mud had stained his pant legs the color of rust. After he finished his homework, Jean Patrick brought out his toy truck and steered it back and forth in the front room. His father had made the imodoka from coat hangers, scraps of wood and metal, and brightly colored bits of plastic.
Roger had a new watch, a gift from a muzungu missionary. He kept setting and resetting the alarm, beeping it in Jean Patrick's ear. The bell for the end of classes rang at Gihundwe, their father's school, and the students' voices bounced between the buildings, a river of sound muffled by the rain. Jean Patrick imagined the day he would leave primary school behind and be one of them, adding his uproar to the rest. Sometimes the anticipation bordered on fever, a feeling that slowed the passage of time down to the very tick of the clock.
"We better get the cattle," Roger said. "If we wait for the storm to end, we will be here, waiting, when Dadi comes home."
They put on their raincoats and rubber boots and took their switches from the side of the house. "Let's race," Jean Patrick said, taking off before Roger had a chance to respond.
The competition between Jean Patrick and Roger began this year, when Roger started playing football on the weekends with a small club called Inzuki—the Bees. He ran whenever he could to keep in top shape, and often he took Jean Patrick with him. He had taught Jean Patrick how to run backward, how to pump his arms and have a good strong kick behind him.
Since they lived at the school, Papa kept the cattle with a cousin of Mama's who lived near. Jean Patrick ran, keeping to the side of the road where the mud was not so churned. Each day, he'd tried to make it a little farther before Roger caught him, but today was impossible. No matter what line he chose, the road swallowed his boots. Roger passed him before the red bricks of Gihundwe's walls were lost to the mist.
From a distance, Jean Patrick spotted the wide arc of horns on the inyambo steer, their father's favorite. In the blur of rain, the horns dipped and turned above the small herd like the arms of an Intore dancer. The steer looked up, blinking his liquid black eyes, as they approached. Jean Patrick placed a hand on the steer's back and felt the wet quiver of his hide. Led by the inyambo steer, the herd shuffled into motion toward the rickety collection of poles that marked the pen.
Roger made it to the gate at Gihundwe a good ten steps in front of Jean Patrick. He stopped and took off his watch. "Look—it took us twenty-seven minutes and thirty-five seconds there and back. I timed it."
Jean Patrick gasped for air. Mud clung to his clothes, his boots, his hands. "You lie. No watch can time us. Let me have it." He took the watch, and there was the time in bold numbers, just as Roger had claimed.
The smells of stewing meat, peppery and rich, came from the charcoal stove in the cookhouse. Jean Patrick and Roger stripped off their boots and raincoats and went inside. In the kitchen, a snappy soukous tune by Pepe Kalle played on the radio. Jean Patrick's little sister did some kwassa kwassa steps with Zachary in her arms. His legs dangled to her knees.
"Eh-eh, Jacqueline. You dance sweet," Jean Patrick teased.
Jacqueline spun around. "Aye! What happened to you? Did you drown?" She pointed to the dirty water that pooled by Jean Patrick and Roger's feet.
Roger took Zachary from Jacqueline, and the three of them danced. Jean Patrick swung his hips the way he had seen on the videos. He was still swinging them when he heard the knock at the door, quiet at first and then louder, and still when he opened the door to two policemen. Mama ran into the room, Baby Clemence bundled at her back.
"We're so sorry to bring you this news," they said.
Mama Brought them tea, her back straight and tall. Clemence began to whimper, and Mama picked her up to comfort her. Zachary played with the truck on the floor as if the only difference between this afternoon and any other was that men had come to visit.
There were six of them traveling together, the policemen said, all headmasters and préfets. The urubaho was out of control—they always were—going too fast down the mountain with a load far too heavy for such a flimsy truck. It swerved around the corner on the wrong side and crashed head-on into the car. Two people dead from Gihundwe—Jean Patrick's father and the préfet de discipline. Two others dead and two badly injured. It was a miracle anyone survived, and the urubaho driver with barely a scratch, obviously drunk. He hit a boy on a bicycle, too; the sack of potatoes he carried on the handlebars scattered across the road. The bicycle was found, but not the boy, the cliffs too steep and dangerous to search in the rain.
The policemen clucked their tongues. It was always the best of the country—Rwanda's future—that died like this. The body was in the hospital at Gitarama. With their permission, the headmaster from Gihundwe would bring him home.
Mama stopped her gentle rocking. "Uwimana wasn't in the car?"
It was one of those strange occurrences, the policemen said, that revealed Ikiganza cy'Imana, the Hand of God. At the last possible minute, there had been an emergency at school, and Headmaster had stayed behind. "Uwimana asked us to fetch his wife from the Centre de Santé as soon as she finishes with her patients."
"Angelique," Mama said. The name came out as a long, trembled sigh. "Yes—I will be glad to see her."
The policemen rose. "We knew your husband—a good, good man. Thank you for the tea."
After they left, Mama stared so hard out the window that Jean Patrick looked to see if someone stood there in the storm. He half believed that if he closed his eyes hard enough, he could blink the afternoon away, look up, and find Dadi there, returned from his trip, pockets full of cookies as they always were.
Mama knelt by him. "Don't worry. Uncle Emmanuel will be a father to you now."
"I hate Uncle Emmanuel," Jean Patrick said. "He's stupid, and he always stinks of fish."
The sting of Mama's slap made his eyes water. "Be respectful of my brother. He's your elder."
Jean Patrick couldn't hold it back any longer. He wailed.
Mama drew him close. "We have to be strong," she said. "Think of your namesake, Nkuba. You must be as brave as the God of Thunder."
The door opened, and Angelique came in, still in her white doctor's coat. Mama collapsed into her arms.
By midnight, the rain had stopped, the moon a blurred eye behind the clouds. Neighbors and family had been arriving since early evening with food and drink. Students and teachers from Gihundwe crowded into the tiny house. The night watchman drank tea inside the door.
The table was set up in the front room, covered with the tablecloth reserved for holidays. There were plates of ugali and stews with bits of meat and fish to dip it in, bowls of isombe, green bananas and red beans, fried plantains, boiled sweet potatoes and cassava. There were peas and haricots verts sautéed with tomatoes, bottles of Primus beer and Uncle Emmanuel's home-brewed urwagwa. Angelique had not stopped cooking, bringing Mama tea, wiping everyone's eyes. The power was off. Candles flickered; lanterns tossed shadows at the walls. Jean Patrick and Roger sat on the floor with Jacqueline, feeding Clemence bits of stew wrapped in sticky balls of ugali.
A wedge of light beckoned Jean Patrick from Papa's study, and he went inside. The lantern on the desk turned the oiled wood into a pliable skin. Papa's books surrounded him and comforted him. Books on physics, mathematics, the philosophies of teaching. Papa must have been writing in his journal; his pen lay across the leather-bound book. The cap rested beside a half-full cup of tea as if at any moment he would enter the room, pull out his chair, and pick up the pen once more. Jean Patrick put the cup to his lips and drank. The sudden sweetness made him shiver. Flecks of tea leaf remained on his lip, and he licked them, tasting the last thing his father had tasted. The house groaned and settled in the night.
Mama joined him. She held a tray of urwagwa, and the banana beer's sweet, yeasty tang tickled his nostrils. "Are you tired? You can go to bed if you want."
He shook his head. He thought of his father sitting in his chair on Friday evenings, drinking urwagwa and eating peanuts. He could almost reach out and touch the glitter of salt on Papa's lips.
"He must have been writing his talk for the meeting," Mama said, stroking the journal's skin.
Jean Patrick read. Everything in the universe has a mathematical expression: the balance of a chemical reaction, the Fibonacci sequence of a leaf, an encounter between two human beings. It is important—the sentence ended there. Jean Patrick envisioned a noise in the bush, his father putting down the pen and peering through the window. It seemed at that moment as if not only his father's words but the whole world had stopped just like that: midsentence.
The men were still drinking, some sharing bottles of urwagwa through a common straw, the women still replenishing empty bowls, when Uwimana came with the coffin. A procession of Papa's family from Ruhengeri followed. Dawn, ash colored, came through the door behind them.
"Chère Jurida," Uwimana said. He held Mama's hand. "Whatever you need, you can ask me. You know François was my closest friend."
A line of people formed to say good-bye. Mama sat by the coffin, her family and Papa's family beside her. The women keened.
"Are you going up?" Roger pressed close to Jean Patrick.
"Are you?" Neither of them moved. "We can go together," Jean Patrick said.
Papa was dressed in an unfamiliar suit. Dark bruises discolored his face, and the angles his body made seemed wrong. Jean Patrick could not reach out to touch him.
"That's not your dadi anymore. Your dadi's in heaven," a small voice said. Jean Patrick looked down to see Mathilde, Uncle's daughter, beside him. She wedged her hand in his. "When my sister died, Mama told me that. I was scared before she said it. I came for Christmas—do you remember? You read me a book."
Of course Jean Patrick remembered. Since she was small, Mathilde had had a hunger for books and loved to listen to stories. When Uncle's family came to visit, she would rush to Papa's study, dragging Jean Patrick by the hand. She would point to a tall book of folk stories on the bookshelf. "Nkuba, read me the one about your son, Mirabyo, when he finds Miseke, the Dawn Girl." It was always this same one.
Even before Jean Patrick could read the complicated text, he knew the story well enough to recite it. "Some day, like Miseke," he would say, "you will laugh, and pearls will spill from your mouth. Then your umukunzi, your sweetheart, will know he has found his one love." Each time he said this, Mathilde released a peal of laughter. "You see?" Jean Patrick would say, pointing to her lips. "Pearls! Just like your Rwandan name, Kamabera." And Mathilde would laugh again.
"You have to tell your papa you love him," she whispered now, "so he'll be happy in heaven." She stood on tiptoes and peered inside the coffin.
Jean Patrick looked at Roger, and together they approached the coffin. They knelt down to recite Papa's favorite words from Ecclesiastes.
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom—"
Jean Patrick stopped. If he spoke the word grave, tears would stain his Sunday shirt.
Uwimana canceled classes on the day of the funeral, and all the teachers and students from Gihundwe escorted the coffin to the church. Cars packed with people wound through the streets, followed by crowds on foot. Children ran on the paths in a cold, drizzling rain. Mud splattered their legs and shorts.
A brown kite swooped from a branch; its sharp cry hung in the mist. Jean Patrick wondered if Papa's soul had wings, too, like the paintings of angels in church. Mist rose from Lake Kivu. Fishermen emerged and disappeared in a gray space that belonged to neither water nor sky. Long-horned cattle grazed in the green hills. As the procession passed, farmers watched from their fields. Some signed the cross; others stretched out a hand in farewell.
Instead of the chapel at Gihundwe, where Jean Patrick's family worshipped every Sunday, they went to Nkaka Church. The harmonies of the choir and the steady beat of drums poured through the open doors. All the pews and chairs were filled. Behind them, people stood shoulder to shoulder. Above the coffin, the Virgin Mary wept tears of blood onto her open robe. The whiteness of the Virgin's skin, her wounded heart, the reverberating drums and clapping, combined to fill Jean Patrick with terror. He shut his eyes and tumbled back in time until he arrived at the moment when he had lain warm inside his bed and wished his father a safe journey. He undid the wish and told his father instead not to go.
Excerpted from Running the Rift by NAOMI BENARON Copyright © 2012 by Naomi Benaron. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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